Project Wonderful

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Second Time Around

Take it from a pro, there's nothing quite like the first time. You're awkward, you're nervous, you don't know quite what to expect, but somehow it's just so magical. It's the first time you work on a campaign.

Many of my favorite followers are embarking on their second campaign adventure, or considering doing so and I wanted to offer my sage advice. Don't get me wrong you should absolutely keep campaigning, I'm just telling you to go into things with your eyes open.

My second race was that oft blogged about cautionary fail, the Edwards campaign. Aside from you know choosing the wrong candidate, one of the biggest mistakes I made was going into the 2008 Caucus without the open mind that I had on my first race. When I joined the Minnesota Coordinated Campaign in 2006 I didn't even know that we wouldn't have days off, I naively thought that I would get to choose between canvassing and call time and I had never (knowingly) met a union member. I look my Regional's word as gospel, because I had nothing else to go on, I canvassed like every door could mean the election despite my candidate's persistent 20 point lead and I loved every minute of it.

Here is where we have to have a heart to heart. If you have only worked on one campaign, even if you have worked on that campaign for multiple years in multiple states (cough, cough OFA) prepare yourself. Not every election is the same and the wisdom that you've acquired, while valuable is not exhaustive. Take the following into account when choosing/embarking on your next race.

1) It's not the size of the election, It's how you use it. It's the age old debate, national/federal vs. local elections. Local campaigns criticize bigger organizations for trying to force a national model where it doesn't belong. Larger races often feel that local candidates and campaign staff can be too big for their britches especially when it's the big campaigns that bring major resources to the table. I've said it before and I've said it again, no campaign is more important than any other. Many people never make the the switch between local and federal because of these prejudices. Having done both, let me pro/con this ish for you a little bit.

A larger campaign offers more of the big family feeling, for obvious reasons. Often big campaigns provide more national/larger scope networking opportunities and your candidate will have more name recognition and more resources. If you're looking to manage staff there are more opportunities on a big campaign and you will likely have more staff under you.

A smaller campaign tends to be more self-directed (for better or for worse) and further removed from national organizations. Staff members tend to wear more than one hat, have more responsibility and more access to the candidate, so it's a great way to get exposure to different aspects of campaigning if you've only ever done field or finance. It's also more about retail politics (your candidate will attend lots of small, local events) and local issues. If you have a big interest in policy, in general the more local your campaign the more people who do pay attention to your race (and there will be fewer) will be concerned about your candidate's stance on the issues beyond national policy affiliation.

No matter which you choose, leave your prejudices about other campaigns behind. The best coordinated campaign is one that truly coordinates.

2) You are not special. No matter which campaign you worked on last election, however much of a rockstar you were or whatever your relationship with your previous bosses, realize that you are starting from scratch here.

I was blessed to fit in seamlessly coming in last on my first race in Minnesota. I had a great relationship with my boss, my volunteers, and my coworkers and was able to impress everyone with the work ethic and energy I brought in for the last few months. At the same time, I was cursed with this hubris going into Iowa for a longer and different campaign. I took myself entirely too seriously and did not prepare (despite warnings) for the marathon as compared to the sprint I was used to. Recognize that this is a different race and you will have to prove yourself all over again. This means going in with an open mind, sitting back and listening and being flexible.

If this is your second campaign no matter how good you are there is no way you don't have something to learn. In time you'll come to see what works for some races and not others, what's universal, and what kind of leadership structure works for you. However once you've taken this job, you're there. Check your preconceived notions at the door and just as you did on your first race, in time you'll find your niche and the best ways to contribute your own style and opinions.

3) Hitch your wagon to the right star. It is surprisingly easy to get stuck as a perpetual field organizer. Last cycle someone had the gall to offer me a deputy RFD position despite the fact that I had 3 years more experience than her. YOU need to take responsibility for the direction of your career because as Ace of Base says, "no ones gonna drag you up to get into the light where you belong."

It is tempting when you feel particularly campaignsick to take the first offer that seems somewhat reasonable, but I urge you to be judicious. Especially if you're thinking of making a career out of electoral politics, think about what you need to get you there. If you want to break into communications, find a race that will give you exposure to press either as a deputy on a particularly large campaign or on a smaller race where the CM will let you draft press releases.

If you want management experience, who is most likely to help you foster those skills and be in a position to promote you on your next campaign? One of the toughest career decisions I ever made was turning down a job working for my favorite boss because an acquaintance offered me a better region with more responsibility. Don't confuse a mentor (someone who can give you great advice and who you seek to emulate) for a sponsor (someone who will spend political capital to help you advance your career). Loyalty is a two way street.

That said, don't underestimate the value of a great boss. If you have a good opportunity with someone you work well with by all means take it. If you don't know your potential supervisor, find out. The same way your employer will ask around about your reputation ask a trusted former boss or someone with more experience about your potential boss. It's important to work for someone who respects your talent and experience and from whom you can learn.

I cannot wait to hear about your latest successes and find out where you all wind up!

Happy New Year!


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